By Mike Costanza
New executive director of the local American Red Cross, a former YMCA executive, talks about his new job and mission and challenges of his organization
Kenneth Lee, the new executive director of the Greater Rochester Chapter of the American Red Cross, has spent over 17 years in the nonprofit field. During that time, Lee has held high-level positions in YMCAs in Newport News, Virginia and Rochester, including seven years as the executive director of the YMCA of Greater Rochester. The 1990 Roberts Wesleyan College (now Roberts Wesleyan University) graduate stepped into his new role on Oct. 31.
Q. You’ve spent much of your working life in increasingly responsible positions with nonprofits. Why are you drawn to these kinds of organizations?
A. I was raised by my mother to have compassion for others. It actually took some time to realize that serving others actually provided real work satisfaction.
Q. According to its mission statement, the American Red Cross “prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and generosity of donors.” Can you describe some of the programs that are important to that mission?
A. We are organized into several lines of service. We are continually engaged in our work related to disaster response — our volunteers respond to home fires and provide immediate assistance to those impacted on almost a daily basis within the chapter. Our blood collection center in West Henrietta processes blood collected from much of New York state and ensures its timely delivery to regional hospitals, and beyond if critical needs arise. Disaster preparedness and prevention, especially in relation to home fires, is also an important area of emphasis. We also provide safety plans and free smoke alarms to individuals and families requesting them as part of our annual Home Fire Safety and Sound the Alarm campaigns.
Q. Before signing up with the American Red Cross you spent much of your working life with the YMCA, a nonprofit with a somewhat different mission. Can you tell us about your current learning process?
A. Two weeks into the role, I am learning much more about the Red Cross than I had known previous to joining the organization. What I can say is there is a lot of great mission-driven work happening here, and I am looking forward to helping the Greater Rochester Chapter and the entire region support the community.
Q. As you settle into your new position, what kinds of challenges does the Greater Rochester Chapter face?
A. The Red Cross is just like many other organizations still coming out of the pandemic. We need to continually recruit individuals to assist in the delivery of our services and programs. The only difference that we may face is that our workforce is made up mostly of volunteers. As a region, we went from over 2,100 volunteers to just over 1,800 today. We are continuing to grow, but we still have a ways to go to get to our pre-pandemic volunteer workforce.
Q. How is the Greater Rochester Chapter addressing that need?
A. There is always an emphasis on engaging our volunteers and keeping them actively involved in our work. One of my responsibilities will be to continue with what we have always done, and that is to place volunteers in clear leadership positions within the organization, and always look for new ways to recognize their important contributions.
Q. Does your chapter face funding pressures of any kind?
A. Fortunately, we have donors and volunteers who generously support our mission-driven work and we are on very solid financial ground. It appears that our community partners are proud to support the mission. Having said that, we are always looking for organizations and individuals who would like to support our community by making the Red Cross their charity of choice.
Q. You led the growth of Teen City programs at the YMCA of Greater Rochester. Do you hope to create more programs of these kinds in your new role?
A. It’s not about recreating the wheel. The Red Cross has a solid program menu which is the base of our mission-driven work. I was excited to learn that the Red Cross does have youth and teen programming. I am hoping that I can utilize my experiences in those program areas to support our volunteers and paid staff in that program delivery.
Q. Are there other programs you hope to help create or grow?
A. The Red Cross is really focusing on our current lines of service. My work each day will be focused on improving the quality and delivery of our current services.
Q. What do you relish about coming to your office?
A. We have a great team of volunteers and staff who love what they do. I look forward to meeting all of them and working together for one common mission.
Q. You’ve lived in the Rochester area for most of the past 20 years. Is there anything you find particularly attractive about living here?
A. I believe the City of Rochester and its surrounding area has the potential to be one of the greatest to live in in the entire country. My children, when they grew up, they had the opportunity to attend the Science Museum (Rochester Museum & Science Center), the (Seneca Park) Zoo and many different parks. They were all affordable and they were not too far to get to. I will enjoy the possibility of trying to help Rochester live up to its full potential in the work that I do.
According to sites like http://firebarrierexperts.com, the American Red Cross provides a number of important services and programs, including disaster assistance, training in emergency preparedness, a youth leadership program, home fire safety instruction and the collection and dispensing of blood supplies. The Greater Rochester Chapter serves Monroe, Allegany, Cayuga, Livingston, Ontario, Seneca, Wayne and Yates Counties. Lee, a married father of three grown children, spoke with In Good Health about his new position, and what he hopes to accomplish in the coming years.